Making Sense of Tone at the Top

In my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. I began by exploring just what we mean by ‘tone” in this context, and what kinds of activities and behaviours by leaders should be seen as constituting setting the right tone.

Next, what does it mean to focus on tone specifically at the top?

The “top” can’t be thought to mean the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever is at the top, for you, ethically: whomever you regard as a moral leader. Because leadership isn’t a job title. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.

So let’s talk for a moment about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also the tone at the middle. Average tenure of a CEO these days is, what, 4 or 5 years? This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every 4 to 5 years. But lower down, every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently.

And from the point of view of ethics, that has to be important. Don’t forget, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. For them, someone in middle management is effectively “the top” – the top of the relevant chain of command. So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.

Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?

“Success” here has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules. Success in this regard means achieving a reasonable level of compliance with not just the letter but also with the spirit of the law, and with the unwritten rules of the game, and with reasonable social expectations.

Now, no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or expect that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations, meeting the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product, it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.

A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.

1 comment so far

  1. Georgeann on

    I agree 100% with this article. Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes and at all levels of an organization. I feel that if the CEO has an ethical demeanor and treats the organization with respect and friendliness, this goes a long way. But, as this article states, there is a larger percentage of leaders that stay in these leadership roles longer than most CEO’s that have a direct effect on the organizational culture. Although the CEO’s and senior management are the people who create the vision for the organization, it is helpful if this vision lines up with the culture. It is about changing culture, not just acting ethically. This is where a corporate culture ethics audit is helpful which is defined as a corporate or organizational culture ethics audit attempts to measure how open channels are between the ethical values stationed at the top of the organization to guide activities and the actual practices below. Saying your organization is ethical and respectful and feeling it are two different things. It is all about perception. Part of the culture may consist of an established dress code which is a set of rules-explicit or implicit-distinguishing what garments may and what may not be worn in the workplace. Sometimes grooming codes are establishes which is a set of rules-explicit or implicit concerning hygiene and presentation at work. Codes may concern hair, tattoos, and fingernails using guidelines. Some people may not agree with these rules, but they are necessary when leaders are trying to build a positive perception and culture that is perceived ethically consistent with the organizational culture as a whole, not individual beliefs of what is considered appropriate or not. Some organizations, such as Google, give their employees more flexibility with this, but they are in a different environment and this style works. But if you work in an hospital and are working with patients, a standardized policy is needed for many situations for the patients sake. Each organization is unique as far as what the culture, or the tone, should represent. It is crucial that the leaders of any organization practice the organizational tone and believe in it so the vision can trickle down the line leading by example.


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